On a recent Saturday, over breakfast, I read The New York Times report on college drinking and sexual assault — stories from five universities of alcohol-soaked scenes laying the groundwork for rampant sexual assault. By two hours later, I was living it again.
I live in East Lansing, Mich., home to Michigan State University. Every time there is a big game in town, as there was this particular weekend, when Michigan State played the University of Michigan, thousands of people pour into our small city and drunken revelry ensues. The choice I then face when going to bed is to set multiple fans to drown out the extraordinary noises, or to keep the fans off, so that I will hear if a young woman screams for help.
Last year, I woke from a dead sleep to someone screaming, "Get away from me!" I ran out to our porch to find a young woman being pursued by a man. I yelled to her to come to my porch.
"No," she answered drunkenly. "It’s cool. I know him."
I asked her why she was yelling that he should leave her alone. "Because he won’t leave me alone!" she said, as if I was daft.
I asked her again, while he put his hands on her, to please come to my porch. I said I would take her home. She started yelling at both me and him simultaneously. I thought about calling the police, but knew from experience that, by the time they arrived, the drunken couple would be gone.
Neighbors told me recently of a situation where they came upon a young drunk woman, completely naked, wandering down the street. They followed her until the police could meet them. Another neighbor told me of how she can’t stop thinking about having watched a drunk young woman, virtually unconscious, being loaded into a car.
We like living in a house built in 1923 near the university and near downtown. Ours is a charming old house, most of our neighbors are great, and we like to be able to walk and bike to so many amenities. But living here means living with the real costs of drunken college culture, including witnessing a culture constantly fomenting sexual assault.
On this recent Saturday morning, the fraternity that rents a large house on our street — the house was built in the 1920s by a local judge for his large family — put up tarps and suddenly had a crowd of what appeared to be about 300 people. Seemingly drunk women were being pulled inside the house by men. Then came the question I’ve had dozens of times: "Do I call the nonemergency police line or 911?"
I didn’t want to drag officers away from active cases of alcohol poisoning for what was so far "just" a party. I ended up texting the mayor who called the city manager who reached the police. …
How long can we keep this up, I wonder? Our small city is currently looking at major cuts in services because we’re being crushed under almost $200 million in debt. About half of that comes from legacy costs associated with having to pay so much for police and fire service by being home to Michigan State. Our police chief recently told me our force was "overtaxed" dealing with people with alcohol poisoning. "While we’re protecting people from the consequences of their own behaviors," he asked me rhetorically, "who is protecting the rest of the city?"
The university doesn’t chip in any funds. What a funny way for our property taxes to pay for higher education.
On this particular Saturday, a few hours after the party on our street was broken up, I spoke to one of the officers who had responded. He told me that, as he was writing up various offenses at the scene, a mother of one of the students kept telling him, "But these are nice boys!"
I could feel the officer’s stress as we spoke. He talked about trying, seemingly impossibly, to stop situations where young women wake up raped.
"Or don’t wake up at all," I answered, thinking of the young man three blocks from us who died of alcohol poisoning a few years ago at a different fraternity.
The fever of sirens at night is exhausting, but the sudden wail of sirens late the next morning scares me the most. By then it’s often too late to save a young life.
University administrations talk about tackling this problem. They can’t under their current model, which is not primarily about traditional academics. Big universities, including Michigan State and the five covered in the Times report, are now explicitly using a corporate model that openly values massive direct and indirect income from sports — what Murray Sperber of Indiana University aptly called "Beer and Circus" in his book of the same name over a decade ago.
It’s not like I haven’t been personally watching this for the 20 years we’ve lived here. But I can’t help but notice how much worse the corporatized university system has become all over this country. Michigan State’s public-relations department is now explicitly called "Communications & Brand Strategy." There’s something deeply chilling about having sexual assault and alcohol-related deaths covered under a brand strategy. But that’s the reality of modern universities.
And the reality is that the big university brands can bear a few dozen rapes and a death or two a year from alcohol. (Look at Pennsylvania State University and the Jerry Sandusky case.)
I’m not sure how long I can bear it. When I think about moving, I think often about no longer making the decision about whether to run fans all night.
Alice Dreger is the author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice (Penguin, 2015). This article originally appeared in Pacific Standard.